White House complying with court order to halt plans to wind down census

Trump administration indicated in filing it intends to appeal after federal judge ordered Census Bureau to pause efforts to end count

A person wearing a face mask walks past a sign encouraging people to complete the census in Los Angeles, California.




A person wearing a face mask walks past a sign encouraging people to complete the census in Los Angeles, California.
Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration said on Tuesday it was complying with a temporary court order to halt plans to complete a rushed effort to count every living person in America by the end of the month. The Trump administration indicated in its filing it intends to appeal against the court order.

The bureau instructed local census officials not to dismiss staff after a federal judge in California ordered the agency on Saturday to pause efforts to end counting for the 2020 census on 30 September. In her ruling, US district judge Lucy Koh noted that the potential harm from an inaccurate count could not be remedied for at least a decade.

The ruling is a preliminary victory for civil rights groups and advocacy groups who sued the Trump administration over plans to end counting for the 2020 census this month. Federal law requires the Census Bureau to deliver finalized census data to the president by the end of the year.

In April, the Trump administration sought to extend counting in the census until the end of October and a four-month extension on the final deadlines because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But in August, the administration reversed itself and said it no longer needed the extension. Census Bureau officials also publicly said earlier in the summer they were “past the point” of being able to produce accurate data by the end of the year. Local workers have since told NPR it will be nearly impossible to get a good count by the end of September.

Cutting the operation short, experts warned, would probably lead to a severe undercount of harder to count populations such as immigrant communities and the poor.

Koh told the bureau to halt its plans to end counting on 30 September until at least the next hearing on 17 September. She pointed repeatedly to a sworn court statement from Albert Fontenot Jr, a top career Census Bureau official, who noted that the agency would begin terminating workers as it got closer to completing counting and it would be harder to rehire staff if the court acted later.

She also noted the interest in preventing an undercount outweighed the interest in keeping the current deadlines. “Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” she wrote. Her order, she wrote, would only require the bureau to plan for the extension it had proposed in April.

The ruling, formally called a temporary restraining order, is the latest development in a years-long high-stakes battle over the 2020 census. After the supreme court blocked the Trump administration in 2019 from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, Trump ordered the bureau in July to take an unprecedented step and produce redistricting data that excluded undocumented immigrants. There are several lawsuits challenging that order, which is probably unconstitutional (the constitution requires the census to count all “persons”).

This week’s ruling will give the Census Bureau more time to try to count every American, said Thomas Wolf, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice who helped represent some of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. The Census Bureau reported 87.6% of US households as of 7 September – 65.4% of households had self-responded and another 22.2% responded after follow-up from the Bureau.

“The 2020 Census needs more time than the Trump administration is offering if we are going to get the full, fair, and accurate count that the constitution guarantees,” Wolf said.

In addition to curtailing counting, the Census Bureau is also planning to shorten by several months a critical period after counting ends that it uses to process and verify data. Confidential Census Bureau slides from August warned that speeding up that process would reduce the accuracy of the data.

“A compressed review period creates risk for errors not being discovered in the data – thereby significantly decreasing data quality,” one slide says. “Additionally, serious errors discovered in the data may not be fixed” because of a lack of time to understand the cause.